Bob Dylan: From Folk Icon to Music Critic

  American poet Bob Dylan (1941- ), who won the 2016 Nobel Prize for Literature for “creating new poetic expressions in the great American song tradition”, insists on presenting the universality of humanity in his artistic creations Cognitive experience, focusing on poetic elucidation of contemporary propositions related to the common values ​​of all mankind. His songs are a model of the fusion of “poetry” and “song”. They not only arouse people’s emotional resonance and cultural awakening, but also promote the popularization of literature and have a profound impact on contemporary popular culture. Music critics have always been keen to find meaning in Dylan’s songs, while Dylan himself hopes to trigger independent thinking among listeners or readers. For example, shortly after the “9·11” incident, Dylan released a album titled In the song “Mississippi” for Love and Theft (2001), he sang: “I used to think my language skills were sublime and powerful, but now I know my theory And poetry can never do your thinking for you.”
Crossover Artist Bob Dylan

  Dylan rose to fame as a folk singer and gradually became a spokesman for the American civil rights and counterculture movements. He was also a crossover artist at the intersection of cultures. He began to write songs, novels, essays, autobiographies and other literary and artistic works in the early 1960s. So far, he has released 35 albums, and his latest album “Shadow Kingdom” (Shadow Kingdom, 2023) has also been released. His artistic vitality is long-lasting. Amazing.
  In early 1961, he composed “Song To Woody” (Song To Woody), a tribute to his idol, three weeks after arriving in New York. When asked why he wrote songs, he replied: “Because no one has written what I want to sing.” The urge to sing his own songs drove Dylan to start his creative career. Most of Dylan’s songs and poems have beautiful melodies, exquisite structures, exquisite wording, and rich connotations, especially philosophical ones. He is good at striking a balance between profound philosophical lyrics and popular song interpretations, and flexibly uses rhetorical techniques such as imagery, metaphor, exaggeration, and parallelism to enhance the artistry and appeal of songs. His use of imagery in his poetry writing is wonderful. The depth of its meaning is thought-provoking and fascinating. For example, “My Back Pages” (1964) uses the two images of “crimson flame” and “burning road” to reflect the passion, unruly and indulgence of “yesterday me” (youth) “Zombie preachers” and “turbulent ships” reflect the sadness and melancholy of “today’s me” who is no longer young.
  In the early 1960s, the British Beatles and the Rolling Stones were popular all over the world, but the United States, the birthplace of rock and roll, had few successors. In his early twenties, Dylan grew up rapidly in Greenwich Village, New York, and began to make a name for himself. His brilliant debut broke the American music scene’s embarrassing situation of being inferior to the British. He combined “soul” rock songs, traditional blues and folk songs, creating the musical form of folk rock. The album “Highway 61 Revisited” (1965) is Dylan’s iconic work that ushered in a new era of American rock and roll. Its lead song “Like a Rolling Stone” (1965) vividly reproduces the concept of homelessness. The spirit of the returnees is confused, which is the common voice of a generation of young people who are trying to break social stereotypes and live according to their own will. Among the tracks recommended by Rolling Stone magazine that year, “Like a Rolling Stone” ranked first on the list, thus establishing Dylan’s unshakable position in the rock music industry.

Bob Dylan recording “Like a Rolling Stone”

  In January 1975, his album “Blood on the Track” (Blood on the Track) was released after two recordings. It received rave reviews. To this day, many people still think that this is the perfect work in Dylan’s singing career. The release of this album once again triggered a trend among American music critics to explore the “meaning of songs.” In 1997, Dylan won three Grammy Awards in 1998 including “Best Album” for his album “Time Out of Mind”.
  Not only that, Dylan has also won many awards in the fields of film, politics, culture, literature and other fields, and has world-renowned artistic achievements. It is true that Dylan’s main identity is a musician, but he is also an excellent poet because he has contributed a considerable number of high-quality songs to the world. Dylan himself also attached great importance to his identity as a poet. In an interview in 1978, he said: “I will regard myself as a poet first, and then a musician. I live like a poet, and I will die like a poet.” Although the awarding of the Nobel Prize to him sparked heated debate around the world, now people have generally recognized the literary value and cultural influence of Dylan’s poetry.
Bob Dylan and Music Criticism

  The music reviews published in The New York Times are well-known in the United States and have an influence that cannot be ignored in English-speaking countries and even Europe. On September 29, 1961, music critic Robert Shelton was deeply inspired by Dylan’s live performances and published a music review in the New York Times that changed Dylan’s destiny, calling him a “style icon.” “Unique Folk Singer”, praised his performance and declared that Dylan will have a brilliant future. Shelton has hosted the music review column for the New York Times for many years, and his influence in the industry brought Dylan great attention. This music review also announced the birth of a new folk star. According to Dylan himself, after reading Sheldon’s comments, Columbia’s gold medal producer John Hammond signed a record contract with Dylan without asking him to audition. It can be said that the start and development of Dylan’s music career are inseparable from the encouragement of music critics. Even Dylan’s ability to become a cultural symbol in the 20th century is inseparable from the cheers of music critics such as Sheldon and Marcus. relation.
  There are many sayings that are widely circulated in the music world, such as “every word, even every breath has meaning” in Dylan’s performance; his expression is concise, “there is not a superfluous word”; Dylan is jokingly said to have a “third-rate personality”. Singing skills, second-rate composition, first-rate lyrics”, etc. were first said by pop music critics. In May 2015, the British UNCUT editorial department released the book “Classic Rock Music Guide: Bob Dylan” (The Ultimate Music Guide: Bob Dylan), which contains in-depth music reviews and reviews of Dylan’s many albums. An exclusive interview with him by a famous music magazine, analyzing Dylan and his songs from the perspective of music criticism. For example, the book contains an interesting review published in the magazine Melody Maker (1965): “Some critics believe that Dylan’s latest work shows that his creative talent is disappearing. If this is really true, Reasonable criticism can only show that the level of critics has declined.” At the Dylan Academic Seminar held at Dartmouth in the United States, academic music critic Louis Rensa led students to treat Dylan’s albums as literature This book conducted a serious literary interpretation of the text and found that Dylan’s lyrics have poetic characteristics such as the ups and downs of rhymes unique to metaphysical poetry.

  In short, Dylan has always been the “darling” of music critics. Almost every performance, every new song released, and every album released by him attracts the attention of music critics. Whether it is a positive or negative review, it will more or less help to increase Dylan’s popularity. It can be said that music reviews, major awards, multiple biographies, authoritative anthologies and other factors jointly contributed to the canonization of Dylan’s works. However, what is surprising is that after being repeatedly evaluated by others for more than half a century, Dylan is no longer just the subject of music criticism, but has truly become a music critic.
Bob Dylan’s Music Criticism Collection “The Philosophy of Modern Song”

  As a world-renowned writer for his poetry, Dylan rarely comments on his own or other people’s songs. It was not until 2010 that he came up with the idea of ​​writing music reviews to review the development of pop music in the 20th century and explore the source of the charm of classic songs. After 12 years of unremitting efforts, Dylan finally completed a collection of music reviews called “The Philosophy of Modern Song”. In this collection of music reviews, Dylan selected 66 musical works from the 80 years from 1924 to 2004 as review objects, including Stephen Foster, Elvis Costello, Hank Williams Works by pop music stars such as Si and Nina Simone.

Bob Dylan’s new album Shadow Kingdom (2023)

  More than 60 years of artistic career have laid a solid foundation for Dylan to enter the ranks of music critics. Trying to write music reviews is another way for him to express his love for music art. In “The Philosophy of Modern Song”, Dylan shares with readers his experience on lyric writing, singing techniques, music adaptation and recording practice; at the same time, he uses other people’s classic old songs as examples to illustrate his views on artistic creation and business. His understanding and experience of the contradictory tensions between operations, as well as his own in-depth thinking on issues of the times such as war and peace. Under the guidance of “music critic” Dylan, readers can not only review the classic repertoire of 20th century pop music on paper, but also engage in some in-depth philosophical reflections on those songs while closing the book. This new book fully reflects the breadth and depth of Dylan’s exploration of musical art.
  Since arriving in New York in 1961, Dylan has been keenly aware that “America is changing. I have a sense of destiny that I am riding these changes.” “One thing is for sure, if I want to write ballads, I needed some new format, some philosophical identity that would not be consumed”. It can be seen from “The Philosophy of Modern Song” that Dylan advocates multiculturalism and tries to incorporate elements of different cultures into his music. He took Elvis Presley’s famous song “Money Honey” (1956) as an example, pointing out that songs are inclusive and diverse, allowing the pursuit of freedom and expression of individuality. He believes that exchanges and collisions in artistic concepts can help avoid narrow thinking and one-sided understanding; art forms that exclude any other national culture will only lead to self-admiration, self-improvement, and ultimately lose vitality – art is cognitive dissent
  . Money is the consensus. I love Caravaggio, you love Basquiat, we all love Frida Kahlo, and Warhol bored us. Art thrives in this intense debate. This is why it is impossible for only one national art form to exist. In this process, we can feel that humans are constantly expanding the boundaries of art, striving to accommodate all opinions and not offending personal views as much as possible.

Dylan comments on the song: “Blue Bay” tells the story of young people who are disillusioned in the big city and long to return to their hometown – the place where their dreams began.

  Introducing songs in the form of storytelling is the first characteristic of Dylan’s music review writing. In this book, Dylan’s music reviews for each chapter are basically divided into two parts. The first part tells a story in poetic language that is consistent with the ideological connotation of the song to a certain extent and is quite interesting. For example, in Ray Charles’s recording of “I Got a Woman” (1954), we hear an interesting little story about a man driving long distances across town to find the girl he loves, “sweaty” His shirt was stuck to the car seat, and he tapped the steering wheel rhythmically to the tenor saxophone music of ‘Fat Head’ Newman”; love drove him to speed on the road, “She was half asleep, half awake, lying Waiting for him on the couch. They would spend a lot of quality time together after driving into town. At first the love was like a peach. They would love each other day and night, never complaining, not being picky. (However) Good times are fleeting. Only Stay for the long haul.” The flow of love is tireless, and the traffic and people never stop… Many other chapters also start in this way, outlining vivid and realistic story scenes for readers before turning to the interpretation of the song itself. The second part uses a more casual prose style to introduce the songwriter and his works in detail. This way of interpreting the songs based on the presentation of the story enhances the reader’s perception of the work.
  The second characteristic of Dylan’s music review writing is that the discussion is extensive and involves different topics and fields. For example, in Chapter 62, Dylan mentioned the controversial issue of authorship and pointed out the possible limitations of autobiographical lyric writing: “Sometimes, songwriters draw materials from their own lives, resulting in creative content. Being self-centered and narrow-minded makes it difficult for others to resonate emotionally.” “Understanding a singer’s life story does not necessarily help you understand his work.” “What is important is that a song makes you think about your own life. New feelings”. In addition, Dylan also criticized the modern music industry where money is paramount, believing that the overly commercial music production line has affected the quality of music: “Today’s music industry is dominated by economists, salespeople and social media… The music industry of this era has lost its soul and has become a commodity.” “The father of American folk song” Pete Seeger’s anti-war song “Waist in the Big Muddy” (1967) is famous for its extremely powerful It has attracted much attention due to its great political and social significance. Dylan used this song as the theme to explore the close connection between the anti-war and civil rights movements in the late 1960s, triggering people’s thinking about the severe tests facing the American social and political environment and other issues. Dylan also mentioned the song “War” written by Whitfield and Strong, and pointed out from a critical perspective that war brings profound disasters to people. As for the “democratic system” that Americans are proud of, Bob believes that behind the right to vote comes a heavy responsibility: If the candidate you vote for starts a war and sends people to the battlefield, then are you a participant in the war? accomplice? “If we want to find war criminals, all we have to do is stare at ourselves in the mirror.” Therefore, everyone has the responsibility to reflect on war and violence. Even if they are not directly involved, they may indirectly cause war.

  Traveling through literature and art to reach philosophy is the third major feature of Dylan’s music criticism writing. Dylan’s philosophical thinking is based on the understanding of the ideological connotation of 66 representative Western pop songs, the analysis of artistic styles, and the comparative evaluation of cultural concepts. Most of the previous music reviews took the musicality of the song or the social nature of the content as the starting point. Dylan took a different approach, starting with a story, using a professional eye to get to the point, and cutting into the core of the song from a philosophical perspective. Here, from the shallower to the deeper, the source of the charm of 20th century pop songs is excavated and displayed in an all-round and multi-faceted way. In this book, Dylan explores philosophical topics such as human nature, irrationality, and intuition, emphasizing human equality and the social responsibility of artists. He said that the humanistic spirit in songs will give musical works powerful ideological power, and artists’ creations should resonate with the times. In the process of commenting on the song, Dylan also criticized the injustice of real society: “Jimmy has seen through the truth of this world. This is not a peaceful beauty valley, but a world full of entrepreneurial desires, sexual greed, and wantonness.” Why don’t we want to get rid of this cruel and crazy world and the hypnotized masses?” What he really wants to convey is the spirit of pursuing freedom, hoping that people can freely create and realize their self-worth. In addition, when discussing the irrational and intuitive factors in the music creation process, Dylan believes that music is an emotional and perceptual expression that requires intuition and inspiration. He himself often encounters “dark moments” in the process of music creation, that is, a state of exhaustion of inspiration or inability to create. At this time, through relaxation and concentration, he can enter an “irrational” state and obtain new ideas from it. and creative inspiration.
  Praising freedom and continuous innovation are Dylan’s lifelong spiritual pursuits in artistic creation. No artist can transcend the opposition between “unfettered art” and “society that restrains people.” All he can do is try his best to resist the restraints of society with unfettered works of art. Dylan’s life trajectory and artistic works all show his yearning and pursuit of freedom.
  Dylan mentioned in “The Philosophy of Modern Song” that Johnny Petchak’s acting career was questioned a lot in the later period. Many people thought that he was exhausted, but he still insisted on creating and used art to resist external pressure. Petchak sang in “Old Violin”: “Tonight I am like an old violin that will sleep at the bottom of the box and will no longer sing.” When he realized that death was approaching, the singer showed a detached attitude, Hope to escape from the troubles of the world and embrace freedom: “Suddenly, I was kidnapped by the wind and began to soar in the infinite sky.” Dylan believes that the singer expresses his desire for freedom and breaking the bonds through dialogue with himself. Most songs tend to create atmosphere and stimulate emotions rather than telling a complete story; however, this song adopts a “scattered perspective” narrative structure to strengthen the emotional and speculative connotation of its characters. This is a song about the view of life and death. The confusion caused by the twilight years of life makes the singer think about the value of life.
  In fact, Dylan also expressed his philosophy on death in many of his works. He once said that he hates the destruction of life, but the pain of death can inspire the most beautiful emotions. Let’s take “Black Rider” from Dylan’s album Rough and Rowdy Ways (2020) as an example. In the first paragraph, the singer said to the Black Knight: “The road you are walking on is too narrow and difficult.” This sentence comes from the Gospel of Matthew, which confirms that its theme involves the struggle between human beings and death; the last sentence is “Black Knight, Black Knight, you should have done enough of this job.” The singer directly talks to the God of Death represented by the “Black Knight” in the words of the singer, describing the transformation of the relationship between death and human beings from oppression to game.
  From composing songs, poems, novels, memoirs, and now writing music criticism, Dylan’s works have always been loved by people in different forms. Dylan doesn’t like to be judged by others, and he hates being defined even more. His identity transformation from singer, poet, painter to music critic was just like when he plugged in the guitar, showing the courage to challenge and innovate. Since winning the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2016, the elderly Dylan has successively released new albums and new books, looking back on history while looking forward to the future, just like an old clam giving birth to dazzling new pearls.
  Carefully read the entire book “The Philosophy of Modern Song”, flip through more than a hundred selected photos, savor dreamlike fragments, and feel the integration of multiple media, just like appreciating a magnificent epic. Dylan’s professional and insightful writings, which sparkle with humanistic care and critical consciousness, can undoubtedly lead the public to examine the essence of culture and feel the true meaning of life through the appearance of music and the fog of the world. When music criticism collides and connects thinking with history, literary aesthetics, philosophy and other humanities disciplines, it may be able to enhance the spread of popular music and help improve the depth of thinking in song appreciation.
  [Fund Project] Hunan Provincial Higher Education Teaching Reform Research Project “Research on Subject Characteristics and Ideological and Political Resources Collection of English Major Courses” (HNJG-2020-0206), Xiangtan University School of Foreign Languages ​​Graduate Research Innovation Project “Bob Dylan’s Anti-War Song Phased results of “Research on the Construction of Poetic Cultural Memory”.
  Author’s workplace: School of Foreign Languages, Xiangtan University
[Attachment] “The Philosophy of Modern Song” Chapter 9 “My Generation” (Excerpt)

  Text [US] Translated by Bob Dylan and translated by Chen Yiru,
  ”My Generation” was written and composed by Pete Townshend (1945-, British musician and rock band guitarist).
  Part One:
  This song favors no one and is skeptical of everything.
  In this song, people try to hit you, slap you, denigrate you. They are rough and use dirty tricks to knock you down. They don’t like you because you always go all out for your dreams and go all out. Because you have energy, ambition, and goals, and you do everything wholeheartedly and spare no effort. You are so inspired. They are jealous of your talent, they treat you coldly, and your very existence offends them. There are countless talented but marginalized people like you in the world.
  In an exclusive club, you are constantly showing off and bragging about the achievements of your generation. You say you are the best of your generation, and you make no bones about it, acting both snobbish and arrogant. You’re not trying to say something sensational, you’re just bluffing, and you don’t expect anyone to understand, acknowledge, or accept what you’re saying. You look down upon the world but have not made any contribution to society. You talk nonsense, hoping to gain some sense of existence before getting older. You don’t want to become decrepit and you’ll end your life before that happens. You look at the world and feel humiliated and disappointed by the hopeless future.
  In fact, you are an eighty-year-old man, being pushed around in a wheelchair in a nursing home, and the nurses are making you confused and upset. Why don’t they all disappear and leave you alone? You are in your second childhood, stuttering and salivating every time you say a word. …
  You’re talking about your generation, preaching and preaching.
  Part 2:
  Each generation can pick and choose the qualities it wants from its predecessors who are equally arrogant and conceited, just as those who came before them can pick and choose the qualities they want from those who came before them. Peter Townsend was born in 1945 just after the end of World War II, and he was undoubtedly one of the earlier baby boomers. Pete’s parents and the baby boomers have been called the Greatest Generation – and that’s not an exaggeration. …
  Like Elvis Presley, Little Richard, and other first-generation rock and roll stars, Marlon Brando was somewhere between the Greatest Generation of All Time and the Baby Boomers; For the Greatest Generation, he was too young to go to war and fight the Nazis; and for Baby Boomers, he was too old to show off his skills at music festivals. When a local girl asked him what he was resisting in the movie “The Savages,” Brando replied, “What do you have now? That’s what I resisted.” Like many baby boomers
  , Pete sounds indignant in this song. But he wasn’t entirely convinced that his ideas were right, and he was a little uneasy. This is a sign of defensiveness. He knew people looked down upon him because he was always easily persuaded and didn’t have a firm stand of his own. Perhaps he felt that he would never live up to others’ expectations, and he knew that people were unhappy with the amount of leisure time his generation had. He wanted those people to disappear and never appear again. He hopes that he will die before he grows old and is replaced by someone else, just as he replaced the previous generation when he was young. Pete didn’t even dare to stand up and defend his name. He had to rely on his spokesperson Roger to speak out. This fear is perhaps the truest thing in the song. We all criticize the previous generation, but in fact we know that sooner or later we will become the previous generation. …

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